The South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) was established on 9 May 1929 by John David Rheinallt Jones, Charles Loram, Howard Pim, Edgar Harry Brookes, J. du Plessis, D. D. T. Jabavu, J. H. Nicholson, and J. G. van der Horst. (C. de B. Webb, however, includes as founders Rheinold Frederick Alfred Hoernlé and Leo Marquard, and excludes Pim, Du Plessis, Nicholson and Van der Horst [Webb 1979, 40]). The IRR is perhaps one of Africa’s oldest think tanks, and certainly its oldest classically liberal (Shandler 1991, 21) think tank. It was located in the basement of the University of the Witwatersrand until February 1947 (Byrne 1990, 27).
By 1936, the IRR was engaged in welfare activism, which contributed to stimulating an emerging liberalism in South Africa. Phyllis Lewsen writes that although the IRR was not politically partisan, it “was broadly liberal in its quest for individual freedoms and social advancement.” Socialists at the time attacked the IRR for being capitalist. Lewsen writes that the IRR had a “belief that accurate information can change attitudes” (Lewsen 1987, 101). Its annual South African Survey of Race Relations began in 1946 and continues today.
J. D. R. Jones, the “Forgotten Man of liberal politics,” has been described as “South Africa’s first full-time professional liberal,” given that he was the first director of the Institute of Race Relations, serving between 1930 and 1947 (Byrne 1990, vii). His successors were Quintin Whyte (1947–1970), Frederick Johannes van Wyk (1970–1980), John Rees (1980–1983), John Kane-Berman (1983–2014), and currently Frans Cronje (Byrne 1990, 30; University of the Witwatersrand 2011; Spector 2013). The IRR relied mainly on American funding since its founding at least up to 1990, at which time the Kellogg Foundation and the American Aid Programme were the main financial supporters of the IRR. Other large funders over the IRR’s history were the Carnegie Corporation, the Phelps-Stokes Fund, and the Ford Foundation (Byrne 1990, 28–30). The IRR’s reliance on American organizations declined beginning around 1983. USAID and the Kellogg Foundation provided funding mainly for bursaries, but others refused to fund the think tank due to their criticism of international economic sanctions and the violence employed by the ANC to further its cause. The IRR survived financially mainly as a result of local fundraising efforts. Michael O’Dowd of the mining corporation Anglo American is noted as having been instrumental in sourcing funds from that company for the IRR’s most contentious work (Kane-Berman 2019c). The government was so threatened by the IRR’s research and stature in civil society that in 1948 it established its own, pro-Apartheid counterpart, the South African Bureau of Racial Affairs at the University of Stellenbosch (see footnote 9 in Overy [2002, 66]).
Widely respected by those who opposed the idea of Apartheid before 1994, the IRR is today regularly labelled as reactionary, conservative, and right-wing, despite the fact that the IRR has simply continued to advocate personal and economic liberty (News24 2011; Cloete 2011; Bond 2015). Compare, for instance, the 1958 IRR-sponsored publication Civil Liberty in South Africa by Brookes and MacAulay and its 2018 publication Race Relations in South Africa: Reasons for Hope 2018. In both there is a clear overtone favoring the dignity and worth of the individual and an unashamed advocacy of private property rights regardless of race. Indeed, Kane-Berman describes the IRR as “unashamedly liberal” (Kane-Berman 2017, ix).
The IRR claims that it has described itself as liberal since 1929, and by that it means to take the view that society is “made up of various interest groups, political and otherwise, but as essentially comprising a collection of individuals, each with inalienable rights” (Kane-Berman 1994, 1). In April 2019, the IRR’s Sihle Ngobese described the IRR as “an advocacy organization that fights for your right to make decisions about your life, your family, and your business, free from unnecessary government, political and bureaucratic interference. We are an actual, classically liberal organization” (Ngobese 2019).
In the same month, April 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa conferred the Order of the Boabab in Silver posthumously on Ray and Dora Phillips, Americans who were involved with the IRR at its founding (Morris 2019a), for their social work among poor black South Africans in the early twentieth century (Lubisi 2019).
In May 2019, Frans Cronje summarized how the IRR believes South Africa should “rebuild” after ideological mismanagement and corruption in recent years:
“Rebuilding will mean, among other things, jettisoning over-zealous labour regulation that prices poor people out of jobs, repealing all race-based policy, reducing the state’s role in the economy, and allowing parents control over the education of their children. Do these things, and South Africa might achieve the growth rates sufficient to substantively erode levels of poverty and inequality to take the wind out of the racial nationalist sails.” (Cronje 2019b)